One of the best Alaska traditions to grip the imagination of the world is Fat Bear Week, with voting beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Alaska time.

The event was started nine years ago as Fat Bear Tuesday by Mike Fitz, then a Katmai National Park ranger and now the resident naturalist for, the conservation outfit which, among other things, has great streaming footage of bears foraging for river salmon at Brooks Falls. Online viewers can watch the bears compete with one another for choice positions to catch fish in preparation for hibernation.

The idea behind the voting now is to let viewers create a 12-bear bracket in which they name finalists for their favorite big butt bears. The most popular bears advance to the final round, culminating in the grand champion, His Royal Beastly Obesity. Bear fans follow the competition on the Fat Bear Week Tournament Facebook group and many bloggers lobby for their own top candidates.

Not only has Fat Bear voting stirred the international imagination, but it has turned out to have incredible educational value for students in elementary school and high school.

What a terrific opportunity teachers now have to turn their students on to science, biology, ecology and more. It really opens up class discussion opportunities on the importance of ecosystems and how a food chain operates.

Teachers also can challenge students with “what if”questions. What might happen if pollution turns river waters more acidic? How might that have an impact on the fish population? If the salmon stock numbers go down, how might that effect the bear population? What are the challenges of human beings hiking in Bear Country?

The contest is a painless way for students to understand the allure of wild spaces and to see the Big Picture of how the Katmai bears fatten up over the course of an Alaska summer and fall. A winning bear may weigh nearly 1,500 pounds — equal to a Harley Davidson with a burly biker and a friend riding atop it.

Beauty is in the eye of each voting beholder. Besides the adult competitors, there is a two-day chubby cubby runoff.

Terrestrial laser scanning systems give the approximate weight of each corker porker. Judging weight has to work that way. No one has found a surefire way to get a bear’s exact weight by persuading it to step on a bathroom scale.